Ex-North Miami Mayor Elton Gissendanner Is Back

A prison stay and bankruptcy can't keep him down.

"A person who has taken hundreds of thousands of special-interest dollars should not go unopposed," he says. "I never had the privilege of going unopposed."

But his reasons go deeper than that. He has spent the past 20 years stewing. "Since I first met him, all he's ever talked about is politics, and he hasn't changed," says veterinarian Tom Garretson, who has worked with Gissendanner at a Key Largo clinic. "What killed him the most is his inability to run for office again, because of the mistakes that he's made."

And he's a conservationist frustrated by the destruction of the Everglades. He likes to paraphrase Genesis. "We're the only species that can destroy the Earth," he says, "the only one that has the power. I sort of take that seriously."

Now age 80, Elton Gissendanner lives in quiet Lake Placid.
Jacek Gancarz
Now age 80, Elton Gissendanner lives in quiet Lake Placid.
In Ortona, Gissendanner meets the townie.
Jacek Gancarz
In Ortona, Gissendanner meets the townie.

Gissendanner realizes he's being grandiose. "I'm sounding like a big shot," he apologizes. "I'm not. But I think about it a lot."

Another of his political mantras boils down to "What would Bobby Kennedy do?" Take all of this into account, and his decision to run seems easy to understand. But Gissendanner's family has celebrated his candidacy with all the enthusiasm of pallbearers at a wake. At age 76, Frances is stricken with a serious but nonterminal disease, which the former DNR chief describes as "neuroposy," staying vague for the sake of her privacy. Frances declined to speak with New Times for this article. "She told me: 'My greatest fear is that you win, because it will take you away from me.'"

His son Buddy is wary of publicly revisiting the past. He says he quit his job in St. Petersburg after his father's indictment, when his bosses at an investment firm called him too "notorious" to meet with clients and reassigned him to a desk job. "It was emotionally and financially devastating," he says. "It put a great deal of strain on my marriage."

The elder Gissendanner admits feelings of guilt, but his long-shot candidacy feeds a voracious obstinate streak. "My wife is sick and my family is upset," he laments. "I'm in a perfect storm. I don't know what I'm going to do."

On a Tuesday afternoon in August, Gissendanner is back in North Miami, stick-shifting his Acura north along Biscayne Boulevard, where the animal clinic he formerly owned is still in business. He turns right on NE 151st Street and points out the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office he once oversaw.

But he considers his career's crown jewel to be the valuable leftovers from the Interama project, which includes this land. He helped save it from developers and eventually convert into Oleta River State Park and the FIU north campus — two institutions that have come to define North Miami.

"This is my legacy," he offers. "I'm more proud of this than anything I ever did. None of this would be here if it wasn't for me. I know you say that's bragging, but if you dig deep enough, you'll see that's true."

He seems personally wounded to see some of his work beginning to unravel, though. North Miami has leased a portion of the land to developers for the gleaming Biscayne Landing condo high-rises. Gissendanner once envisioned a public golf course there. "I just about puked when I saw them," he says. "There's gonna be a bunch of them! Dozens of them! High!"

Then he stops the car next to a street sign in an FIU parking lot. "Read that," he demands.

The road is named for state senator and former county commissioner Gwen Margolis.

Gissendanner pushes the gas. "I don't have anything in my name," he says. "There's no public recognition."

Meanwhile the campaign to rescue his reputation takes a day off. He's on his way back to Lake Placid from Miami Beach's Mount Sinai hospital, after a CAT scan to get to the bottom of a flulike bug that's been dogging him. While the results showed nothing serious, it's a reminder he no's longer a young man.

Gissendanner probably won't heed that reminder. Asked if his father might finally retire if he loses this campaign, Buddy doesn't hesitate: "Not until they close the lid on the coffin."

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